Rain Shadow
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Rain Shadow
Effect of a rain shadow
The Tibetan Plateau (center), perhaps the best example of a rain shadow. Rainfalls from the southern South Asian monsoon do not make it far past the Himalayas (seen by the snow line at the bottom), leading to an arid climate on the leeward (north) side of the mountain range and the desertification of the Tarim Basin (top).

A rain shadow is an area of significantly reduced rainfall behind a mountainous region, on the side facing away from prevailing winds, known as its leeward side.

Evaporated moisture from water bodies (such as oceans and large lakes) are carried by the prevailing onshore breezes towards the drier and hotter inland areas. When encountering elevated landforms, the moist air is driven upslope towards the peak, where it also condenses into nimbuses and starts to precipitate. If the landforms are tall and wide enough to block or sufficiently delay the passage of these rain-producing weather fronts, most (if not all) of the humidity will be lost to precipitation over the windward side (also known as the rainward side) before ever making it past the top, and the air also forms foehn winds on the leeward side that absorb moisture downslope, therefore casting a broad "shadow" of dry climate region behind the mountain crests, usually in the form of shrub-steppe, xeric shrublands or even deserts.


The condition exists because warm moist air rises by orographic lifting to the top of a mountain range. As atmospheric pressure decreases with increasing altitude, the air has expanded and adiabatically cooled to the point that the air reaches its adiabatic dew point (which is not the same as its constant pressure dew point commonly reported in weather forecasts). At the adiabatic dew point, moisture condenses onto the mountain and it precipitates on the top and windward sides of the mountain. The air descends on the leeward side, but due to the precipitation it has lost much of its moisture. Typically, descending air also gets warmer because of adiabatic compression (see Foehn winds) down the leeward side of the mountain, which increases the amount of moisture that it can absorb and creates an arid region.[1]

Regions of notable rain shadow

There are regular patterns of prevailing winds found in bands round Earth's equatorial region. The zone designated the trade winds is the zone between about 30° N and 30° S, blowing predominantly from the northeast in the Northern Hemisphere and from the southeast in the Southern Hemisphere.[2] The westerlies are the prevailing winds in the middle latitudes between 30 and 60 degrees latitude, blowing predominantly from the southwest in the Northern Hemisphere and from the northwest in the Southern Hemisphere.[3] Some of the strongest westerly winds in the middle latitudes can come in the Roaring Forties between 30 and 50 degrees latitude.[4]

Examples of notable rain shadowing include:


Northern Africa

The Atlas mountains' (top) rain shadow effect makes the Sahara even drier.
  • The Sahara is made even drier because of two strong rain shadow effects caused by major mountain ranges (whose highest points can culminate to more than 4,000 meters high). To the northwest, the Atlas Mountains, covering the Mediterranean coast for Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia as well as to the southeast with the Ethiopian Highlands, located in Ethiopia around the Horn of Africa. On the windward side of the Atlas Mountains, the warm, moist winds blowing from the northwest off the Atlantic Ocean which contain a lot of water vapor are forced to rise, lift up and expand over the mountain range. This causes them to cool down, which causes an excess of moisture to condense into high clouds and results in heavy precipitation over the mountain range. This is known as orographic rainfall and after this process, the air is dry because it has lost most of its moisture over the Atlas Mountains. On the leeward side, the cold, dry air starts to descend and to sink and compress, making the winds warm up. This warming causes the moisture to evaporate, making clouds disappear. This prevents rainfall formation and creates desert conditions in the Sahara. The same phenomenon occurs in the Ethiopian Highlands, but this rain shadow effect is even more pronounced because this mountain range is larger, with the tropical Monsoon of South Asia coming from the Indian Ocean and from the Arabian Sea. These produce clouds and rainfall on the windward side of the mountains, but the leeward side stays rain shadowed and extremely dry. This second extreme rain shadow effect partially explains the extreme aridity of the eastern Sahara Desert, which is the driest and the sunniest place on the planet. Similar levels of aridity and dryness are only seen in the Atacama Desert, located in Chile and Peru.
  • Desert regions in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti) such as the Danakil Desert are all influenced by the air heating and drying produced by rain shadow effect of the Ethiopian Highlands, too.

Southern Africa

  • The windward side of the island of Madagascar, which sees easterly on-shore winds, is wet tropical, while the western and southern sides of the island lie in the rain shadow of the central highlands and are home to thorn forests and deserts. The same is true for the island of Réunion. On Tristan da Cunha, Sandy Point on the east coast is warmer and drier than the rainy, windswept settlement of Edinburgh in the west.
  • In Western Cape Province, the Breede River Valley and the Karoo lie in the rain shadow of the Cape Fold Mountains and are arid; whereas the wettest parts of the Cape Mountains can receive 1,500 millimetres (59 in), Worcester receives only around 200 millimetres (8 in) and is useful only for grazing.


Central and Northern Asia

  • The Himalaya and connecting ranges also contribute to arid conditions in Central Asia including Mongolia's Gobi desert, as well as the semi-arid steppes of Mongolia and north-central to north western China.
  • The Verkhoyansk Range in eastern Siberia is the coldest place in the Northern Hemisphere, because the moist southeasterly winds from the Pacific Ocean lose their moisture over the coastal mountains well before reaching the Lena River valley, due to the intense Siberian High forming around the very cold continental air during the winter. One effect in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) is that, in Yakutsk, Verkhoyansk, and Oymyakon, the average temperature in the coldest month is below -38 °C (-36 °F). These regions are synonymous with extreme cold.

Eastern Asia

  • The Ordos Desert is rain shadowed by mountain chains including the Kara-naryn-ula, the Sheitenula, and the Yin Mountains, which link on to the south end of the Great Khingan Mountains.
  • The central region of Myanmar is in the rain shadow of the Arakan Mountains and is almost semi-arid with only 750 millimetres (30 in) of rain, versus up to 5.5 metres (220 in) on the Rakhine State coast.
  • The plains around Tokyo, Japan - known as Kanto plain - in the winter months experiences significantly less precipitation than the rest of the country by virtue of surrounding mountain ranges, including the Japanese Alps, blocking prevailing northwesterly winds originating in Siberia.

Southern Asia

The Agasthiyamalai hills cut off Tirunelveli (India) from the monsoons, creating a rainshadow region.

Western Asia

Most of Iran is rain-shadowed by the Alborz mountains in the north (just south of the Caspian sea), hence the country's mostly (semi) arid climate.


Central Europe

  • The Plains of Limagne and Forez in the northern Massif Central, France are also relatively rainshadowed (mostly the plain of Limagne, shadowed by the Chaîne des Puys (up to 2000 mm of rain a year on the summits and below 600mm at Clermont-Ferrand, which is one of the driest places in the country).
  • The Piedmont wine region of northern Italy is rainshadowed by the mountains that surround it on nearly every side: Asti receives only 527 mm of precipitation per year, making it one of the driest places in mainland Italy.[5]
  • Some valleys in the inner Alps are also strongly rainshadowed by the high surrounding mountains: the areas of Gap and Briançon in France, the district of Zernez in Switzerland.
  • The Kuyavia and the eastern part of the Greater Poland has an average rainfall of about 450 mm because of rainshadowing by the slopes of the Kashubian Switzerland, making it one of the driest places in the North European Plain.[6]

Northern Europe

  • The Pennines of Northern England, the mountains of Wales , the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland create a rain shadow that includes most of the eastern United Kingdom, due to the prevailing south-westerly winds. Manchester and Glasgow, for example, receive around double the rainfall of Sheffield and Edinburgh respectively (although there are no mountains between Edinburgh and Glasgow). The contrast is even stronger further north, where Aberdeen gets around a third of the rainfall of Fort William or Skye. The Fens of East Anglia receive similar rainfall amounts to Seville.[7]
  • The Scandinavian Mountains create a rain shadow for lowland areas east of the mountain chain and prevents the Oceanic climate from penetrating further east; thus Bergen and a place like Brekke in Sogn, west of the mountains, receive an annual precipitation of 2,250 millimetres (89 in) and 3,575 millimetres (141 in), respectively,[8] while Oslo receives only 760 millimetres (30 in), and Skjåk, a municipality situated in a deep valley, receives only 280 millimetres (11 in).

Southern Europe

  • The Cantabrian Mountains form a sharp divide between "Green Spain" to the north and the dry central plateau. The northern-facing slopes receive heavy rainfall from the Bay of Biscay, but the southern slopes are in rain shadow. The most evident effect on the Iberian Peninsula occurs in the Almería, Murcia and Alicante areas, each with an average rainfall of 300 mm, which are the driest spots in Europe (see Cabo de Gata) mostly a result of the mountain range running through their western side, which blocks the westerlies.
  • The Norte Region in Portugal has extreme differences in precipitation with values surpassing 3,000 mm (120 in) in the Peneda-Gerês National Park to values close to 500 mm (20 in) in the Douro Valley. Despite being only 28 km (17 mi) apart, Chaves has less than half the precipitation of Montalegre.[9]
  • The eastern part of the Pyrenean mountains in the south of France (Cerdagne).
  • The valley of the Vardar River and south from Skopje to Athens is in the rain shadow of the Prokletije and Pindus Mountains. On its windward side the Prokletije has the highest rainfall in Europe at around 5,000 millimetres (200 in) with small glaciers even at mean annual temperatures well above 0 °C (32 °F), but the leeward side receives as little as 400 millimetres (16 in).[]

North America

On the largest scale, the entirety of the North American Interior Plains are shielded from the prevailing Westerlies carrying moist Pacific weather by the North American Cordillera. More pronounced effects are observed, however, in particular valley regions within the Cordillera, in the direct lee of specific mountain ranges. Most rainshadows in the western United States are due to the Sierra Nevada and Cascades.[10]


  • On the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, the southwestern sides are in the rain shadow of the trade winds and can receive as little as 400 millimetres (16 in) per year as against over 2,000 millimetres (79 in) on the northeastern, windward sides and over 5,000 millimetres (200 in) over some highland areas.

Northern America


Australia in Oceania[18] showing on a map.


  • In New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, Monaro is shielded by both the Snowy Mountains to the northwest and coastal ranges to the southeast. Consequently, parts of it are as dry as the wheat-growing lands of those states. For comparison, Cooma receives 535 millimetres (21.1 in) of rain annually, whereas Batlow, on the western side of the ranges, receives 1,220 millimetres (48 in) of precipitation. Furthermore, Australia's capital Canberra is also protected from the west by the Brindabellas which create a strong rain shadow in Canberra's valleys, where it receives an annual rainfall of 580 millimetres (23 in), compared to Tumut's 790 millimetres (31 in). It is worth noting that, in the cool season, the Great Dividing Range also shields much of the southeast coast (i.e. Sydney, the Central Coast, the Hunter Valley, Illawarra, the South Coast) from south-westerly polar blasts that originate from the Southern Ocean.[19][20]
  • In Queensland, the land west of Atherton Tableland in the Tablelands Region lies on a rain shadow and therefore would feature significantly lower annual rainfall averages than those in the Cairns Region. For comparison, Tully, which is on the eastern side of the tablelands, towards the coast, receives annual rainfall that exceeds 4,000 millimetres (160 in), whereas Mareeba, which lies on the rain shadow of the Atherton Tableland, receives 870 millimetres (34 in) of rainfall annually.
  • In Tasmania, one of the states of Australia, the central Midlands region is in a strong rain shadow and receives only about a fifth as much rainfall as the highlands to the west.
  • In Victoria, the western side of Port Phillip Bay is in the rain shadow of the Otway Ranges. The area between Geelong and Werribee is the driest part of southern Victoria: the crest of the Otway Ranges receives 2,000 millimetres (79 in) of rain per year and has myrtle beech rainforests much further west than anywhere else, whilst the area around Little River receives as little as 425 millimetres (16.7 in) annually, which is as little as Nhill or Longreach and supports only grassland. Also in Victoria, Omeo is shielded by the surrounding Victorian alps, where it receives around 650 millimetres (26 in) of annual rain, whereas other places nearby exceed 1,000 millimetres (39 in).
  • Western Australia's Wheatbelt and Great Southern regions are shielded by the Darling Range to the west: Mandurah, near the coast, receives about 700 millimetres (28 in) annually. Dwellingup, 40 km inland and in the heart of the ranges, receives over 1,000 millimetres (39 in) a year while Narrogin, 130 kilometres (81 mi) further east, receives less than 500 millimetres (20 in) a year.

Pacific Islands

  • Hawaii also has rain shadows, with some areas being desert.[21] Orographic lifting produces the world's second-highest annual precipitation record, 12.7 meters (500 inches), on the island of Kauai; the leeward side is understandably rain-shadowed.[1] The entire island of Kahoolawe lies in the rain shadow of Maui's East Maui Volcano.
  • New Caledonia lies astride the Tropic of Capricorn, between 19° and 23° south latitude. The climate of the islands is tropical, and rainfall is brought by trade winds from the east. The western side of the Grande Terre lies in the rain shadow of the central mountains, and rainfall averages are significantly lower.
  • In the South Island of New Zealand is to be found one of the most remarkable rain shadows anywhere on Earth. The Southern Alps intercept moisture coming off the Tasman Sea, precipitating about 6,300 mm (250 in) to 8,900 mm (350 in) liquid water equivalent per year and creating large glaciers on the western side. To the east of the Southern Alps, scarcely 50 km (30 mi) from the snowy peaks, yearly rainfall drops to less than 760 mm (30 in) and some areas less than 380 mm (15 in). (see Nor'west arch for more on this subject).

South America

The Andes mountains block rain and moisture from the Amazon basin to the west (Bolivia).
  • The Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest non-polar desert on Earth because it is blocked from moisture on both sides (the Andes Mountains to the east block moist Amazon basin air while the Chilean Coast Range stops the oceanic influence from coming in from the west).
  • Cuyo and Eastern Patagonia is rain shadowed from the prevailing westerly winds by the Andes range and is arid. The aridity of the lands next to eastern piedmont of the Andes decreases to the south due to a decrease in the height of the Andes with the consequence that the Patagonian Desert develop more fully at the Atlantic coast contributing to shaping the climatic pattern known as the Arid Diagonal.[22] The Argentinian wine region of Cuyo and Northern Patagonia is almost completely dependent on irrigation, using water drawn from the many rivers that drain glacial ice from the Andes.
  • The Guajira Peninsula in northern Colombia is in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and despite its tropical latitude is almost arid, receiving almost no rainfall for seven to eight months of the year and being incapable of cultivation without irrigation.

See also


  1. ^ a b Whiteman, C. David (2000). Mountain Meteorology: Fundamentals and Applications. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513271-8.
  2. ^ Glossary of Meteorology (2009). "trade winds". Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. Retrieved 2021.
  3. ^ Glossary of Meteorology (2009). "westerlies". Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. Retrieved 2021.
  4. ^ Glossary of Meteorology (2009). "roaring forties". Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. Retrieved 2021.
  5. ^ "Asti weather". weatherbase.com.
  6. ^ S.A, Wirtualna Polska Media (2016-02-02). "Kujawy - najsuchsze miejsce w Polsce". turystyka.wp.pl (in Polish). Retrieved .
  7. ^ "UK Rainfall averages". Archived from the original on 2010-02-18.
  8. ^ "Spør meteorologen!". www.miljolare.no. Retrieved .
  9. ^ "Iberian Climatic Atlas" (PDF). IPMA, AEMET. Retrieved 2020.
  10. ^ "How mountains influence rainfall patterns". USA Today. 2007-11-01. Retrieved .
  11. ^ Glossary of Meteorology (2009). "Westerlies". American Meteorological Society. Archived from the original on 2010-06-22. Retrieved .
  12. ^ Sue Ferguson (2001-09-07). "Climatology of the Interior Columbia River Basin" (PDF). Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-05-15. Retrieved .
  13. ^ http://www.cocorahs.org/Media/docs/ClimateSum_VA.pdf
  14. ^ "Precipitation Variability | Western North Carolina Vitality Index".
  15. ^ "Answer Man: Asheville a 'temperate rainforest' in wake of record rain?".
  16. ^ "Gorges State Park | NC State Parks".
  17. ^ "Canada's only desert is in B.C. But not where you think it is".
  18. ^ "Oceania | Definition, Population, & Facts".
  19. ^ Rain Shadows by Don White. Australian Weather News. Willy Weather. Retrieved 24 May 2021.
  20. ^ And the outlook for winter is ... wet by Kate Doyle from The New Daily. Retrieved 24 May 2021.
  21. ^ Giambelluca, Tom; Sanderson, Marie (1993). Prevailing Trade Winds: Climate and Weather in Hawaií. University of Hawaii Press. p. 62. ISBN 9780824814915.
  22. ^ Bruniard, Enrique D. (1982). "La diagonal árida Argentina: un límite climático real". Revista Geográfica (in Spanish): 5-20.

External links

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